Prothonotary warbler

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Prothonotary warbler
Protonotaria-citrea-002 edit.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Parulidae
Genus: Protonotaria
Baird, 1858
P. citrea
Binomial name
Protonotaria citrea
(Boddaert, 1783)
Protonotaria citrea map.svg
Range of P. citrea
  Breeding range
  Wintering range

The prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a small songbird of the New World warbler family. It is named for its plumage which resembles the yellow robes once worn by papal clerks (named prothonotaries) in the Roman Catholic church.

The prothonotary warbler is the only member of the genus Protonotaria and the only eastern warbler that nests in natural or artificial cavities.


The prothonotary warbler was described by the French polymath Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in 1779 in his Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux from a specimen collected in Louisiana. Buffon coined the French name Le figuier protonotaire.[2] The bird was also illustrated in a hand-coloured plate engraved by François-Nicolas Martinet in the Planches Enluminées D'Histoire Naturelle, which was produced under the supervision of Edme-Louis Daubenton to accompany Buffon's text.[3] Neither the plate caption nor Buffon's description included a scientific name but in 1783 the Dutch naturalist Pieter Boddaert coined the binomial name Motacilla citrea in his catalogue of the Planches Enluminées.[4] The prothonotary warbler is now the only species placed in the genus Protonotaria that was introduced in 1858 by the American naturalist Spencer Baird.[5][6][7] The species is monotypic, no subspecies are recognised.[7]

The genus name is from Late Latin protonotarius, meaning "prothonotary", a notary attached to the Byzantine court who wore golden-yellow robes. The specific citrea is from Latin citreus meaning the colour "citrine".[8] It was once known as the golden swamp warbler.[9]

A molecular phylogenetic study of the family Parulidae published in 2010 found that the prothonotary warbler was a sister species to Swainson's warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii).[10]


The prothonotary warbler is 13 cm (5.1 in) long, weighs 12.5 g (0.44 oz), and has a wingspan of 22 cm (8.75 in).[11] It has an olive-coloured back with blue-grey wings and tail, yellow underparts, a relatively long pointed bill, and black legs. The adult male has a bright orange-yellow head. Females and immature birds are duller and have a yellow head. In flight from below, the short, wide tail has a distinctive two-toned pattern, white at the base and dark at the tip.[12]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

The prothonotary warbler mostly breeds in hardwood swamps in extreme southeastern Ontario and the eastern United States. However, it may nest near other bodies of water such as creeks, streams, ponds, and swimming pools.

The habitat of the warblers during migration is not well known. However, they are particularly prominent in Belize during spring migration.[13]

The warblers winter in the West Indies, Central America and northern South America, primarily in Mangrove Swamps.[14][13]

It is a rare vagrant to parts of the western United States,[15] most notably California.

Behavior and ecology[edit]

The prothonotary warbler is the only eastern warbler that nests in natural or artificial cavities, sometimes using old downy woodpecker holes. The male often builds several incomplete, unused nests in his territory; the female builds the real nest and lays 3–7 eggs.[16]

The preferred foraging habitat is dense, woody streams, where the prothonotary warbler forages actively in low foliage, mainly for insects and snails.[16]

The song of this bird is a simple, loud, ringing sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet-sweet. The call is a loud, dry chip, like that of a hooded warbler. Its flight call is a loud seeep.[17]


Prothonotary warblers are declining in numbers due to loss of habitat. They also experience parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), and are outcompeted for nest sites by the house wren (Troglodytes aedon). The warblers are listed as endangered in Canada. The species persists in protected environments such as South Carolina's Francis Beidler Forest, which is currently home to more than 2,000 pairs, the densest known population.[18]

In culture[edit]

Art and literature[edit]

John James Audubon's painting of a prothonotary warbler is the third plate in The Birds of America.[19]

The warbler has also been mentioned several times in literature. First, the warbler is mentioned in A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold as the "[J]ewel of my disease-ridden woodlot", "as proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa. When you doubt the wisdom of this arrangement, take a look at the prothonotary."[20] Second, Kurt Vonnegut described the warbler as "the only birds that are housebroken in captivity" in his novel, Jailbird.

The Hiss-Chambers Hearing[edit]

The prothonotary warbler became known to a wider audience in the 1940s as the bird that established a connection between Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

On August 3, 1948, in a hearing before the committee, Chambers accused Hiss of being a communist spy who sought to infiltrate the U.S. government. Two days later, Hiss testified before the committee and claimed, among other things, that Chambers' allegations were false and that he did not know Chambers.

However, future U.S. president, Richard Nixon, who was then a freshman congressman on the committee, became convinced that Hiss had committed perjury at the hearing.[21] To verify this suspicion, the committee had Chambers appear before it again on August 7, 1948, to testify about his relationship with Hiss. At that hearing, Chambers testified that Hiss enjoyed bird-watching, and once bragged to Chambers about seeing a prothonotary warbler along the Potomac River. When Hiss appeared before the committee again, he haphazardly confirmed spotting a prothonary warbler on the Potomac, causing many members of the committee to become convinced of the pair's acquaintance.[22][23][24] Ultimately, the Hiss-Chambers hearing led, in part, to Nixon's political rise.[13]



  1. ^ BirdLife International (2016). "Protonotaria citrea". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T22721765A94730179. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22721765A94730179.en. Retrieved 11 November 2021.
  2. ^ Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc de (1779). "Le figuier protonotaire". Histoire Naturelle des Oiseaux (in French). Vol. 9. Paris: De L'Imprimerie Royale. p. 465.
  3. ^ Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc de; Martinet, François-Nicolas; Daubenton, Edme-Louis; Daubenton, Louis-Jean-Marie (1765–1783). "Figuier à ventre et tête jaunes de la Loisiane". Planches Enluminées D'Histoire Naturelle. Vol. 8. Paris: De L'Imprimerie Royale. Plate 704 Fig. 2.
  4. ^ Boddaert, Pieter (1783). Table des planches enluminéez d'histoire naturelle de M. D'Aubenton : avec les denominations de M.M. de Buffon, Brisson, Edwards, Linnaeus et Latham, precedé d'une notice des principaux ouvrages zoologiques enluminés (in French). Utrecht. p. 38, Number 704 Fig. 2.
  5. ^ Curson, Jon; Quinn, David; Beadle, David (1994). New World Warblers. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 159–161. ISBN 0-7136-3932-6.
  6. ^ Baird, Spencer F. (1858). Reports of explorations and surveys to ascertain the most practical and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean made under the direction of the secretary of war in 1853-1856. Vol. 9 Birds. Washington: Printed by Beverly Tucker. pp. xix, xxxi, 235, 239.
  7. ^ a b Gill, Frank; Donsker, David, eds. (2019). "New World warblers, mitrospingid tanagers". IOC World Bird List Version 9.2. International Ornithologists' Union. Retrieved 9 September 2019.
  8. ^ Jobling, James A. (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 109, 318. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.
  9. ^ Bird: The Definitive Visual guide. DK Publishing. 2007. ISBN 0756655749.
  10. ^ Lovette, I.J.; Pérez-Emán, J.L.; Sullivan, J.P.; Banks, R.C.; Fiorentino, I.; Córdoba-Córdoba, S.; Echeverry-Galvis, M.; Barker, F.K.; Burns, K.J.; Klicka, J.; Lanyon, S.M.; Bermingham, E. (2010). "A comprehensive multilocus phylogeny for the wood-warblers and a revised classification of the Parulidae (Aves)". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 57 (2): 753–770. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2010.07.018. PMID 20696258.
  11. ^ "Prothonotary Warbler | State of Tennessee, Wildlife Resources Agency". Retrieved 2020-09-30.
  12. ^ Dunne, Pete (2006). Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin.
  13. ^ a b c Petit, Lisa J. (2020). "Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), version 1.0". Birds of the World. doi:10.2173/bow.prowar.01.
  14. ^ Stiles, Gary; Skutch, Alexander (1989). A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9600-4.
  15. ^ "Prothonotary Warbler". BirdWeb. November 2017. Retrieved 2022-12-26.
  16. ^ a b Atwell, Leigh. "Protonotaria citrea (prothonotary warbler)". Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved 2022-12-26.
  17. ^ Alderfer, Jonathan (2006). National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. National Geographic Society.
  18. ^ Burns, Jim (October 2, 2018). "158. Francis Beidler Forest, Harleyville, South Carolina". BirdWatching.
  19. ^ "Audubon's Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh". Retrieved 2022-12-26.
  20. ^ Aldo Leopold (1996). A Sand County Almanac. The Random House Publishing Group. p. 82.
  21. ^ "Chambers accuses Hiss of being a communist spy". HISTORY. July 30, 2020. Retrieved 2022-12-26.
  22. ^ Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 362, 564, 572, 573, 580. ISBN 0-89526-571-0.
  23. ^ Linder, Doug (2003). "The Trials of Alger Hiss: A Commentary". Famous Trials. University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Archived from the original on 2006-08-30.
  24. ^ Miller, John J. (30 April 2007). "The Unsung Hero of the Cold War". National Review. Archived from the original on 10 October 2012.

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